Politics

Ben Carson’s Religion, Explained

CREDIT: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

When Ben Carson was 14, he tried to stab his friend to death.

At the time, Carson, now known as the Republican party’s neurosurgeon-cum-presidential candidate, was growing up in Detroit, Michigan. Struggling with the challenges of a poverty-stricken childhood, he developed what he called “a horrible temper problem,” and regularly lashed out at others. Things hit a boiling point one day in ninth grade, when he and a friend got into a dispute over which radio station to listen to. Carson snapped: In a fit of rage, he drew a large camping knife and jabbed it directly at his friend’s abdomen.

Thankfully, the blade broke when it struck the boy’s belt buckle, and Carson’s friend fled the scene terrified but unharmed. Left alone, Carson was suddenly overcome with shame, and locked himself in a bathroom to process. He turned to the thing he believed would comfort him the most — the Bible — and read from Proverbs 16:32: “One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and one whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city.”

“I stayed in there for hours reading and contemplating and praying, and I came to an understanding during that time that to react, to lash out, was not really a sign of strength,” Carson told PBS in 2008. “When I came out of the bathroom after three hours I was a different person, and I never had a problem with temper since then.”

Thus began the unusual faith journey of Carson, the famously low-key GOP White House hopeful currently surging in the polls, whose religious beliefs are now a big part of his political identity. A retired neurosurgeon by trade, Carson made a career of using knives to help — not hurt — people, and is actively working to wield his religion as an equally useful tool. When asked in early September to name the difference between himself and Republican party frontrunner Donald Trump — who is known for lacking humility and fumbling religious questions — Carson cited his faith.

“Probably the biggest [difference] — I’ve realized where my success has come from and I don’t in anyway deny my faith in God,” Carson said. He then quoted a Bible verse: “‘By humility and the fear of the Lord are riches and honor and life’ and that’s a very big part of who I am. I don’t get that impression with [Trump]. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t get that.”

Trump, of course, fired back later that week, asking, “Who is [Carson] to question my faith?” Yet Carson’s faithful brand of politics is already chipping away at “the Donald’s” lead in states like Iowa, where Carson enjoys an 87 percent approval rating among white evangelicals, only 4 percent of whom view him unfavorably. Trump, meanwhile, only has a 56 percent approval rating with the same group, while a full 38 percent list him as unfavorable.

But as Carson works to drum up support among the coveted evangelical vote, a closer inspection of his religious beliefs — rooted in a personal story of compassion and conciliation — reveals that he may have less in common with the hard-charging Christian Right than appearances suggest.

Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist, but likes other religions too

When asked, Carson identifies as a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), the same tradition claimed by his mother and his estranged father, who was a minister in the denomination. The enigmatic Protestant group emerged out of the Second Great Awakening — a 19th century American Christian revival movement — but has unusual origins. Its (indirect) founder, Baptist preacher William Miller, was convinced he knew the exact date of Jesus Christ’s prophesied Second Coming, or return to earth. When several of Miller’s suggested dates passed without incident, however, swaths of his followers abandoned the tradition — including many who had given away all their possessions to be a part of the group. Still, a sizable portion kept the faith while fracturing into several subgroups, the largest of which is today’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, which now claims around 18 million members worldwide— but less than 7 percent reside in the United States.

Despite these odd beginnings and some unusual practices (for instance, members of the SDA church worship on Saturday, not Sunday), Carson has made it clear that he embraces many of his church’s eccentric teachings — especially its endorsement of health as a spiritual discipline. Carson, a highly successful pediatric neurosurgeon, has championed his faith’s reverence for a healthy body, where religious support for exercise, good diet, and aversion to alcohol and drugs has made it so that members of the SDA church live roughly 10 years longer than the average American. Carson has clearly taken this to heart himself, and an SDA Church-affiliated medical school in Nigeria currently bears his name.

More importantly for his political career, however, Seventh-day Adventists — while not rank-and-file evangelicals themselves — share many beliefs common within mainstream evangelicalism. Until 2012, for instance, the church referred to homosexuality as a “disorder,” and remains “opposed to homosexual practices and relationships,” just like many evangelicals.

Yet while Carson has echoed this belief over the years, he has done so unevenly — at least from an evangelical perspective. He has opposed marriage equality by comparing LGBT people to pedophiles, advocated for the removal of pro-LGBT judges, and argued in March that homosexuality is “absolutely a choice” because “a lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight and when they come out, they’re gay.” But he also apologized in two of those instances, and although he maintains that (heterosexual) marriage is a “religious institution” that the Supreme Court shouldn’t infringe upon, he also called for Constitutional protections for LGBT people by insisting that “we are all made in God’s image.”

This ideological seesawing is reflected in Carson’s own church-going tendencies, which appear to pull from several traditions. When the Religion News Service asked him to explain his connection to the SDA church in 1999, Carson gave what amounted to a noncommittal spiritual shrug.

“I spend just as much time in non-Seventh-day Adventist churches because I’m not convinced that the denomination is the most important thing,” he said. “I think it’s the relationship with God that’s most important.”

Carson’s understanding of other religions is also atypically inclusive compared to many Christian conservatives. Carson has repeatedly voiced respect for multiple faith traditions, and described a tolerant approach to religious pluralism in his 2012 book America the Beautiful.

“As a Christian, I am not the least bit offended by the beliefs of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons and so forth,” Carson wrote. “In fact, I am delighted to know that they believe in something that is more likely to make them into a reasonable human being, as long as they don’t allow the religion to be distorted by those seeking power and wealth.”

Too liberal for evangelicals, too political for Seventh-day Adventists

Carson’s live-and-let-live approach to other religions — as well as his SDA affiliation — has already caused trouble with Christian conservatives on the campaign trail.

When he was asked to speak at a Baptist pastor’s conference in April, a cadre of young ministers mostly affiliated with the group Baptist21 protested. They took particular umbrage with an Easter Facebook post (since deleted) in which Carson wrote, “Let us also remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in God, and while there are ideological differences in who Jesus was, we should find peace in the fact that we are all God’s children.” They insisted his tolerant perspective could imply a theological belief that allows for multiple pathways to God outside of Christianity — a position firmly rejected by most evangelicals on biblical grounds.

“Certainly, we do not all worship the same God — we worship the Trinity whom Muslims and Jews would deny,” a statement from Baptist21 read. The group also called Carson’s position as “at best [a] type of liberalism.”

In addition, the pastors were wary of his Adventist membership, especially the purported belief in “annihilation” instead of Hell and the supposed rejection of Sola Scriptura — a Protestant belief that scripture should be held above all other things as God’s Word. Eventually, Carson and the Baptist group “mutually agreed” to rescind the invitation, even though several prominent evangelical leaders balked at the decision. The situation was made worse when the Southern Baptist Convention invited several other non-evangelical candidates — including Catholics Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — to an event a few weeks later with little controversy.

Meanwhile, Carson’s own tradition has worked to distance itself from his candidacy, but not for the reasons you might think. In a statement released shortly after Carson announced his presidential bid, the SDA church encouraged its ministers to avoid backing him from the pulpit — partly because federal law makes such an action illegal, but also because of the SDA church’s “historical position of separation of church and state.” According to the SDA website, the church has sometimes been at odds with governments that “enforce Sunday closing laws,” because their members observe a Saturday sabbath.

“Adventists should participate in the voting process available to us when it is possible to do so in good conscience and should share the responsibility of building our communities,” a 2002 statement from the church read. “Adventists should not, however, become preoccupied with politics, or utilize the pulpit or our publications to advance political theories.”

This belief might raise eyebrows among far-right Christian groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which organizes almost 2,000 pastors every year for “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” — a day when pastors intentionally endorse candidates from the pulpit and mail their sermons to the IRS, daring the government to act.

Adventists, like evangelicals, are passionate supporters of religious liberty. But like Carson, the SDA church intentionally extends this belief to all groups, not just like-minded Christians.

“The church has worked diligently to protect the religious rights of all people of faith, no matter what their denominational affiliation,” the SDA statement read.

Pushing Christian economics, or religious communism?

Despite all this controversy, Carson hasn’t shied away from fusing his politics and his faith, particularly when it comes to monetary policy. When Carson spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013, he hinted that America could benefit from implementing a tax policy rooted in the biblical concept of a tithe, which is often (incorrectly) interpreted to mean that a believer should offer up 10 percent of their earnings to the church. Carson has since turned this idea into a full-fledged flat tax policy, promoting it during the first GOP debate.

“What I agree with is that we need a significantly changed taxation system, and the one that I’ve advocated is based on tithing, because I think God is a pretty fair guy,” Carson said. “And that’s why I’ve advocated a proportional tax system. You make $10 billion, you pay a billion. You make $10, you pay one. And everybody gets treated the same way.”

Carson’s theology is arguably a bit off (the Bible technically asks followers to tithe more than 20 percent), as is his sense of how this plan would impact federal programs. An analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice found that his policy would only bring in a third of what the federal government accrues through the current tax system. Yet the proposal is still expressive of the SDA church, which actively encourages its members and affiliated organizations to tithe.

He’s not the first American to recommend it, as the system has been tried before by a Mormon group in the mid-1800s. But as Jim Tankersley pointed out over at the Washington Post, that experiment — as well as the original biblical model — essentially amounted to “a religious form of communism,” which means it’s “not likely to inspire a Republican tax plan any time soon.”

* * *

None of this has stopped the Carson campaign from pursuing evangelical support, of course. After all, this is the group of voters that eventually supported Mitt Romney — a Mormon who also doesn’t share many evangelical views — in the 2012 election, and the Christian Right has significantly less power than it did in past years. In fact, a recent Monmouth University poll reported that Carson already tops Trump among evangelicals, claiming 29 percent of their support compared to Trump’s 23 percent. This also puts Carson ahead of self-identified evangelical Republican candidates such as Scott Walker, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Mike Huckabee — the last of which is an ordained Southern Baptist minister.

It’s unclear what exactly is triggering Carson’s rise, or how long it will last. But in the meantime it appears that Carson is benefiting from both his Adventist beliefs and the stark contrast between his faith and that of Trump: Whereas Trump is often willing to wield daggers in debates, Carson put his knives away a long time ago.

This article is part of our ongoing series on the faith of presidential candidates. You can find our first entry, which chronicles Gov. Scott Walker’s questionable claims to evangelicalism, here. Our second entry, which details the faith of Donald Trump, is here.

UPDATE SEP 22, 2015 9:46 AM

A few days after publishing this piece, Ben Carson made comments about Islam that challenge — or arguably directly contradict — his professed inclusive stance towards other religions. You can read more about that here.

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